Tastings School - All aboard the beer tram

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All aboard the beer tram

Jeff Evans climbs aboard the Kusttram for a beer journey along the beautiful Belgian coast.

With a bump and a squeal, the tram rattles its way along the Belgian coast. The journey is nippy and fun, sometimes as smooth as velvet, at other times as jerky as a fairground ride, as we scuttle past busy marinas, golden beaches and rolling sand dunes. With plenty of stops at regular intervals, it’s a great way to bar hop.

De Kusttram has run along the Flanders shoreline for more than 120 years. The electrified service is efficient and inexpensive, the perfect basis, I discovered, for a pub crawl with a difference in this most amazing of beer countries.

The route begins close to the French border and runs nearly all the way to the Netherlands. But, rather than simply cruising from end to end, I decided to find a hotel about halfway along and then daytrip east and west. I chose De Haan, a resort east of Ostend, not just because it houses one of Belgium’s finest beer bars but also because it seemed one of the most genteel places to stay. I wasn’t disappointed on either front.

De Haan is a delightful small town with some truly attractive buildings. The prevailing mood is of the 1920s, with Art Deco the inspiration. It even extends to the best bar in town, which can be found right next to the tram stop.

De Torre is a rather garish-looking structure, painted a bright cake-yellow with red horizontal ‘icing’. The atmosphere is down to earth and vibrant, especially in the evenings when the music is loud and modern, and more mature drinkers decamp to the terraces at the front and back. It is clearly not the entertainment that draws these people here.

The standard fare of beer menus in Belgian seaside bars consists of various InBev creations such as Leffe and Hoegaarden, joined by a few Trappist beers and some well-known offerings such as Rodenbach and De Koninck. At De Torre, however, the list is a mind-boggling catalogue of rare, high-quality beers divided into categories that include abbeys, wits, gueuzes, saisons and more. It’ll take you as long to decide what to order as to drink it when it arrives.

From De Haan the ride to the end of the tram line in either direction is not long. The last stop towards the Netherlands is at Knokke, 40 minutes away. Knokke is a beach town for the wellheeled, the place where Belgians go to see and be seen, but a better bet for the beer traveller is neighbouring Heist, slightly nearer De Haan. I headed there first on day one and then gradually worked my way back to base.

Like most Belgian resorts, the seafront area at Heist consists of a long promenade, with the sea on one side and condominiums rising on the other. On the ground floor of the condos there is usually some commercial activity, be it a bucket-and-spade shop or a restaurant-café, like the Schildia here.

The Schildia doesn’t look anything special, but the food and drink provision is first rate. I had one of the best fish dishes I have ever eaten, washed down with a Corsendonk Blonde on draught. I could have been more adventurous, as the beer menu, broken down by Belgian region, has nearly 200 choices.

Leaving Heist and skipping west, past the docks at Zeebrugge, where giant cranes stalk the landscape, the tram clatters its way into Blankenberge. If Knokke is where the well-to-do have their fun, Blankenberge is where the masses hang out. The seafront is long and busy, with bronzed bodies glistening on the beach below and the Belgian equivalent of kiss-me-quick shops on the other side. The town’s most noted beer bar, however, stands away from the ocean, alongside the central park. It’s called Den Brasseur and is closed on a Tuesday. Stupidly, I called on a Tuesday. The fame of the beer list goes before it, however, and easily makes it the pick of the hostelries in town.

In the absence of an open door at Den Brasseur, I headed along the breezy promenade, past the casino. Turning back down into the town, I was attracted by the Café Royal where yellow umbrellas advertised Boon Kriek. I treated myself to a glass of this sumptuously fruity drink while studying the beer list. It was quite a find, with more than 100 beers on offer, including less obvious names such as Moeder Overste and Heksenbier.

I concluded my Blankenberge tour with a drink in the aptly-named Terminus on the station square. In a boxy room with beamed ceilings and burgundy walls, the usual suspects have their place on the beer list, but you can also sample beers from the likes of St Bernardus, Achouffe and Brugse Zot.

Day two of my beer odyssey saw me race towards the French end of the line and back again. The tram terminus there is in the town of De Panne but I stopped just short of the full distance and dropped into the Sol Cress hotel in the resort of Koksijde. The hotel is not actually on the sea but it’s worth a visit because it holds an Orval Ambassadorship. The monks at Orval take the service of their beer very seriously, to the point where they award Ambassador status to bars that excel.

I was met by Rik Vernack, whose wife’s family has run the hotel for 40 years. Rik is a former branch president of the Zythos beer consumers’ organisation, so he knows all about Belgian beer. The 20-odd beers on the Sol Cress list include St Idesbald Blonde abbey beer on draught – very appropriate as the ruins of St Idesbald’s abbey lie just yards away.

The other intriguing feature of Sol Cress is the museum it runs just along the street. Housed in a former boarding school, it’s a quirky repository for domestic and industrial items that the family has collected over the years, anything from beer ephemera to a selection of meat mincers that has earned itself a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

From Koksijde, the tram trundles eastwards through sand-gritty seaside towns that are not as brazen as Blankenberge or as swish as Knokke.

The main destination is Ostend, still a vibrant transport hub. Far too many travellers are easily enticed into one of its pseudo-British bars, but those in the know head straight for the Café Botteltje.

Ostend’s premier beer outlet at first looks a bit like a theme pub itself, with its big, carved bar that could easily have come from a London boozer, but it won’t take you long to realise that this place really cares about beer. Hung above the seating booths are copies of the beer list, a large and hefty tome held together by a wooden frame.

There are old beer and whisky advertising boards on the dark green walls, but you’ll be more intrigued by the contents of the menu – a selection of around 300 beers that includes more than a dozen gueuzes, and also features Christmas and winter ales.

As I sipped my glass of Ename Dubbel and contemplated an evening of beery adventure, I was all the more pleased that I’d left my car at home and let the tram be my guide.

Info The Kusttram service runs from De Panne to Knokke. Day passes (unlimited travel) cost 5 Euros, three-day passes 10 Euros and five-day passes 15 Euros. To reach the Belgian coast from the UK, take the Eurostar from London St Pancras International to Brussels Midi (around two hours or less) and then change for Ostend (just over an hour’s journey). A Eurostar ticket, with prices from £59 return, includes free onward rail travel to any station in Belgium. Advice on travel and destinations can be obtained from Tourism Flanders at www.visitflanders.com BARS De Torre, Memlinglaan 2, De Haan.

Tel: +32 (0)59 236 532 www.detorre.be (tram stop: De Haan aan Zee) Schildia, Zeedijk 250, Heist. Tel: +32 (0)50 515 058 www.schildia.be (tram stop: Heldenplein) Den Brasseur, Leopoldstraat 34–38, Blankenberge. Tel: +32 (0)50 414 134 www.den-brasseur.be (tram stop: Park) Café Royal, Charlierhelling 12, Blankenberge. Tel: +32 (0)50 411 896 (tram stop: Station) Terminus, Koning Leopold III Plein 1, Blankenberge. Tel: +32 (0)50 411 945 (tram stop: Station) Hotel-Restaurant Sol Cress, Koninklijke baan 225, Koksijde. Tel: +32 (0)58 512 332 www.solcress.be (tram stop: Ster der Zee) Café Botteltje, Louisastraat 19, Ostend.

Tel: +32 (0)59 700 928 www.hotelmarion.be (tram stop: Marie-Joséplein)